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German-themed evening

It’s funny how sometimes a theme creates itself over the course of a night. Last night I decided to try the famous Ishigaki beef. It is made from Japanese Wagyu cattle, the same as used for Kobe beef, but is only raised on this island. Within Japan it is supposed to have the same fame and quality as Kobe beef. So I walked though the center to find a restaurant that caters to solo travelers, has a nice selection, and is decently priced. After 15-20 min and a failed attempt to get a table for 1 I found “Native Deli”, which had an offer of chuck steak with soup and rice for 4000 Yen. I was heartily greeted and sat down at the counter. The chef didn’t look Japanese, but he sounded fluent in Japanese and spoke English with an accent.

While I waited for my steak I heard the owner talking to a couple a few seats down. He explained that he was from Germany but lived here for quite a while. Shortly after my steak came and it was perfectly medium, smooth as butter, and really delicious. Very tender, juicy, and a very mild beef flavor. Getting beef of this kind of marbling is rare and extremely expensive.

After I ate I started to chat a little bit with the owner. His name is Axel, he moved to Japan 46 years ago when he was 20 and lived in several parts of the country ever since. Now, at 66, he decided to move to Ishigaki to enjoy the more calm and relaxed lifestyle of a small island. So if you’re in Ishigaki and crave for some nice steak, I can really recommend his place.

On my way back to the hostel I passed a typical, small Japanese restaurant which had a small sign next to the door: “goat noodles”. I heard that the Ishigaki goat noodles are famous and very typical for the island. So I went in to have a small bowl of goat noodles before getting back. The owner, Toni, rushed out of his back rooms when I entered. A small, elderly guy with sweat pants, a towel around his head, and what looked liked a walmart west from the 80’s with his name on it. He greeted me and asked me where I’m from. As I replied Germany he became even more excited and told me he wants to show me German television. At least that’s what I got from his mixture of 80% Japanese with 20% English words in-between. So he climbed on a chair and turned his old TV on that was on a shelf below the ceiling. And a German documentary about a cruise ship started. He pointed on himself and then the TV, so I guessed he is on that show.

I got my soup and watched that typical German scripted documentary about the cruise ship coming to Ishigaki. They showed the intern on the boat, the life of passengers and crew, and then how they spend their one day in the city. Some went to the beach, some went to crafts classes, some went to neighboring islands, and three guys went to Tony’s restaurant for his famous goat soup. He showed me proudly the information material he got from the TV crew and his guestbook of foreign visitors. After his part he showed me a second show, this time a US show, where a biker who is cycling across Japan comes to his place to eat the goat soup. During the 30 minutes I sat there and watched his shows, he told all the Japanese customers who came in, ate, and left in the meantime that I am a German – that much Japanese I understand – and that he is showing me his show. The noodles were great, not too goat-y yet still with it’s distinctive flavor, and the free entertainment really time well spent. A very German-themed evening.

 

Korean ATM odyssey

It’s interesting how accustomed I get to modern traveling. As a teenager I planned ahead where to best exchange currency, how much money I should take, and how much backup I need. Nowadays I pack my VISA and just fly or drive to any other country and get cash any time from an ATM. Works all over Europe, worked in the US, worked in Africa, and worked in the remotest locations in South America. But then came Busan, Korea.

I flew with Björn from Osaka to Busan as our first stop in Korea before visiting Regine, Christian, and Dong in Seoul. Immigration went smooth and after clearing customs we went straight to the next ATM. “Global ATM” was clearly written over all 3 machines, however even after several attempts both my and Björns cards were not accepted. I had some cash from a friend which was enough to bring us to the central subway station where we had to change lines to get to our hostel. In Japan ATMs were everywhere, since you couldn’t pay local transport with cards, so I assumed the same would be true for Busan where you cannot pay local transportation with cards either. We boarded the subway and went to Sasang station where we had to change lines. Unfortunately our ticket was not valid for transfer, so we had to buy a new ticket. My cash was not enough for the following tickets, so we started looking for an ATM at the subway station. Nothing. We left the station and searched for a bank overground. On the other side of the huge intersection was a “Bank of Busan” where we entered full of confidence that we will get cash here. But the ATMs did not have the “Global ATM” sign and subsequently rejected our cards. The security guard pointed us further down the road, there would be another bank, maybe we are more lucky there.

We thus walked down the street with our full backpacks, mine with about 20 kg on the back and 5 kg on the front, to try out the next bank. About 500m down the road we found another bank. The lady at the counter signaled us that they are closed, but when we pointed to the ATMs they let us in to try our luck. First attempt failed. Second attempt with different option in the ATM menu, failed. I asked the clerk if he knows what is wrong. He started to inspect my VISA card as if he had never seen a credit card before. “This credit card?” he asked, I confirmed. “Which bank?” he continued. “Comdirect, German bank” I replied. “Oh.” Silence. “No foreign cards.” While the ATM said “Global ATM” and had a sub-menu for foreign cards, it seems the bank did not support it. So we were sent further down the road, looking for yet another bank. A couple of hundred meters further the third bank. We were heartily greeted and curiously watched when we entered and went straight to the ATMs. New game, new chance. Yet failed again. Here as well the VISA cards were rejected. The clerk was very curious, he too looked at my card as if it was the first VISA he saw, but eager to help he tried several options on the ATM but wasn’t more successful than Björn or I. He started talking to his colleague and she began looking up things in her computer. Meanwhile I used the free wifi to search for information on VISA in Korea. And I found indeed the information that foreign cards are not commonly accepted in ATMs. Only the banks KEB, Citibank, and a third bank I forgot are safe bets, others might work or might not work. With that information I talked to the lady behind the counter to help me find one of these banks nearby.

Björn was talking to the clerk and remembered one safe bet when it comes to cash in Southeast Asia: 7-eleven! Their convenience stores always have ATMs and in his previous travels in Southeast Asia they were always reliable. So Björn and the clerk tried to find the next 7-eleven, while the lady and I tried to find the next KEB bank. Björn finally found a store not too far away, but since Google Maps is restricted in Korea navigating is not easy, especially if you are completely new to the city. So he showed the location to the clerk, wo started running out of the bank. He signaled us to follow him. We grabbed our bags and followed him, as he was running down the street. A few meters behind the next crossing he showed us the 7-eleven store, said goodbye and ran back to the bank.

The tension rose. Will the 10th ATM at the 5th location finally spit out cash? Feed in card. Not instantly rejected. Select “Credit Card Service”. Next screen loads. “Enter amount.” “Enter PIN.” “Please wait.” This was the time when the previous ATMs spit out the cards with “Service unavailable.” But then the liberating sound of rotating cash broke the silence. “Please take your belongings. Thank you for your transaction.” We finally had cash and could continue to our hostel. Good to know that if all fails, 7-eleven will be there for you. 😄

Sushi madness

As final dinner for Japan Björn and I decided to go for Sushi. From the sister of a friend who lives in Osaka we got the recommendation to go to Sushiro, a conveyor belt sushi chain, specifically their branch in Ebisu north of the Shinkansen station. We were warned that it gets crowded at night and we should expect to wait a while.

We arrived at the restaurant and quite a lot of people were waiting already. One employee was handing out waiting numbers so we went to her and asked how long it’s going to be. “Table at least 30 min, belt seat ok?” she replied. We were a little confused, as belt seats are at least to me the more fun seats. Sure they are ok, and she immediately brought us to our seat.

The order panel with several pages and tabs full of sushi.

The restaurant was really different from what I saw so far. A conveyor belt like any other but above it on every seat was a small screen with touchscreen. While the sushi plates made their turns on the belt, you could order your personal plates in case the sushi you’re looking for is not around. The selection was incredible. There were pages and pages of sushi with salmon, tuna, white fish, seafood, meat, vegetables, and also deserts and other specialties.

After you put all the things you want into the virtual shopping basket you send your order and wait. After a few minutes a fanfare sounds from the screen and a message appears. Your order is about to arrive. Then you see one of the plates you ordered coming around the corner on a small pedestal, so you can distinguish it from the regular plates.
The other big surprise was the price. Most plates, except for special plates such as fatty tuna or other delicacies, were 99 Yen (0.75 EUR) per plate. And the quality was still very good, no big difference to other sushi places. Just the atmosphere was somewhat fastfoody, but that was part of the fun for me.

I tried over 20 different kind of sushi and I did not even make it halt way through their menu. Most of it was really good, some was more experimental and maybe the last time I ordered it. In the end I had about 2 dozen plates, same as Björn, but still no way near the group of Japanese teens who finished at least 200 plates as a group of 4. Their whole table was filled with stacks of plates. Not one spot was empty. Unfortunately I could not get a picture, but these guys were impressive eaters.

So with a few beers and desert we had each about 20 EUR for a full stomach of sushi and a great Japanese experience. Totally worth it!

Hide and seek with Mount Fuji

When you look at travel guides dor Japan one of the must see sights us always mount Fuji. Hell, he is even so famous that he has his own emoji 🗻. On my flight to Tokyo I was lucky enough to sit on the right side and I saw his snow white summit rising high in the distance. I wanted to see him up close, so Björn, Barbara, and I decided to go hiking near mount Fuji.

Getting there from Shinjuku is rather simple, there are several buses a day running from Shinjuku station to small towns around mount Fuji. Unfortunately, Tuesday was the only day with bad weather forecast. But as tickets were getting sparse we bought our ticket on Saturday when the forecast was still fine. We crossed our fingers and hoped for the best. As we arrived in Kawaguchiko at the foot of mount Fuji, not only the summit but the whole mountain was covered in clouds.

Most of the day this was the view of mount Fuji during our hike. Normally there would be a mountain with its peak close to the top of the picture. Now there are only clouds.

Barbara, Björn, and I started our hike up Mount Tenjo and planned to continue further to Shimoyama, a nice 2 hour one-way hike with usually great views of Fuji. This time we were out of luck. Strong wind and repetitive showers were not the best companions. So we crawled slowly up the hill, looking for a sheltered place for our lunch break.But most of the time the path was on the wind-facing side, so we did not find any place until shortly before the top. The top was surprisingly unspectacular. Maybe because of the clouds, but we turned back right away. For the descent we chose a different path that led us through a small village and along the lake. But the showers turned into constant rain, so after a few rounds through the town looking for a nice coffee place we decided to go to the bus station and check if we can exchange our tickets in the evening for earlier.

Used to the German public transport and its famous flexibility I expected long discussions and extraordinary fees up to buying a new ticket to get back earlier. While Björn was checking out the cafeteria Barbara and I lined up at the ticket counter and ended up at the counter of a man in his 50s. He didn’t speak much English, so the conversation was mostly single noun based.
“next bus Shinjuku?”
“next bus 10 minutes”
“later bus?”
“50 minutes”
“ok, change ticket?”
Then I showed him my reservation on the cell phone. He grabbed my phone and started scrolling up and down on the ticket. When he found what he was looking for he hacked some numbers in the computer and pointed at his screen.
“seat ok?”
I confirmed and he printed the two tickets for me and Björn. Then Barbara, who booked here ticket separately a day after Björn and me, handed him her phone. Visibly confused he looked at her phone, hacked her numbers in, and offered her a seat across the isle from me.

I was genuinely surprised by the level of mindfulness the man showed. From German public transport employees I’m used that they do their jobs but hardly take matters in their hand to solve issues.

With 50 minutes until departure we had enough time for a coffee, a beer, and a toilet break before heading back to Tokyo and our last night in the city.